Since inking a deal with the United States in a Doha ceremony on Feb. 29, the Taliban have touted the agreement “ending the occupation,” as the pact is described in their propaganda, as a victory for not just their jihadists but all who have fought in the name of Islam.
After “nearly nineteen years of Jihad and struggle,” Taliban leader Mawlawi Hibatullah Akhundzada wrote, “this victory is the collective victory of the entire Muslim and Mujahid nation – of our fellow brothers and sisters who presented monumental and extraordinary sacrifices of life and wealth for nearly two decades.”
The withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan means foreign forces will be “never intervening in its affairs in the future,” Akhundzada vowed in hailing his group’s “great achievement.”
“We must not label this accomplishment the work of a particular individual or group but consider it a Reward from Allah and the product of the sacrifices of the entire Mujahid nation,” he added, proceeding to outline what their Islamic state would look like.
Under the agreement, the Taliban would prevent “any group or individual, including al-Qaeda, from using the soil of Afghanistan to threaten the security of the United States and its allies” and the U.S. would withdraw its forces within 14 months. The seven-day “reduction in violence” leading up to the agreement, intended to prove the Taliban’s commitment, was not an elimination of violence as attacks continued, but since the agreement has been signed the Taliban have increased attacks on Afghan forces. U.S. forces conducted their first airstrike since the signing of the agreement on March 4, hours after the Taliban killed 20 army and police officers, an attack that occurred just after President Trump had what he called a “very good” phone call with Taliban leaders. “We have done a great job in terms of getting rid of terrorists,” Trump said March 2 at the White House. “Now it’s up to other countries to get rid of those terrorists.”
On Monday, U.S. Forces Afghanistan spokesman Col. Sonny Leggett said the U.S. has “begun its conditions-based reduction of forces to 8,600 over 135 days.” Senate Foreign Relations Committee member Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) tweeted after a classified briefing on the agreement that “it’s not clear how we will track whether they are indeed renouncing terrorist groups.” Multiple government sources told NBC News that intelligence shows the Taliban “have no intention of abiding by their agreement.”
With an overt prescient nod typical of their communications over the years, the Taliban noted in a March 3 piece, “An agreement no matter how well-written and no matter how well received and supported is not worth the paper it is written on unless it is honored and implemented by all parties to the agreement.” And it’s hard to see how the Taliban would split from their al-Qaeda and Haqqani brethren — at least any sort of private divorce.
The Taliban, al-Qaeda and the Haqqani network are tied by longtime links, educational and training relationships and intermarriage. A June report by the sanctions monitoring team to the UN Security Council noted that al-Qaeda “has grown stronger operating under the Taliban umbrella across Afghanistan and is more active than in recent years.” The Taliban “continue to be the primary partner for all foreign terrorist groups operating in Afghanistan” except ISIS, and with more than 20 distinct groups operating in the country “these groups are broadly aligned with the Taliban and al-Qaeda.”
The question is not just about the precarious future of Afghanistan and the Taliban’s overt relations with longtime terror allies, but how a declared victory and the visuals of U.S. pullout will inspire all Islamic terrorists who, despite squabbles, share core goals of dominion of their brand of Islam and subjugation of their foes. ISIS propaganda, for example, has long included photoshopped images portraying the defeat of U.S. forces and the White House falling to the Islamic State. ISIS has been carrying news of the Taliban deal in its weekly al-Naba newsletter.
In addition to terrorists’ overall mission always being a greater motivating force than a promise made to their enemy, fear of inspiring more attacks has been a bedrock of why governments traditionally don’t negotiate with terrorists — you don’t want the terrorists around the corner to know they can force your hand. These negotiations also unfolded during our current era of collective jihad, in which terror groups cheer lone attacks regardless of the loyalty claim made by the attacker and ISIS adherents use terror tutorials written by al-Qaeda.
A crucial currency in terrorist recruitment and retention is motivation – look past the grisly graphics, and you have a collection of breakroom-meme posters encouraging jihadists to bring their A-game and never give up. The struggle is real, they’re told, and for every step back (like major territorial losses) they’ll take two steps forward, even if it takes time and persistence. Taliban propaganda has long boasted that they would eventually bring “to their knees” American “crusaders,” and as their headlines scream that they essentially accomplished their goal it can serve as a shot in the arm to other terror groups operating with the same aims.
Some factors that could feed this trend:
A Taliban propaganda machine that doesn’t get censored like ISIS
It’s easy to read Taliban calls to action, view photos of training camps or watch their videos: the Taliban website has been online for years and carries tweetstreams and propaganda in English, Pashto, Urdu, Dari, and Arabic. They run a film studio, Al-Emarah, that releases propaganda films – sometimes multi-part series – more frequently than ISIS; their magazine, Al-Samood, expanded its pages even as ISIS’ official jihadist publications shrunk. They’ve been knocked offline now and then by determined anti-terror gray-hat hackers, but social media and web hosting companies have given the Taliban (and to some extent, their allies al-Qaeda) more free rein than ISIS. Their domain is currently registered under Toronto-based Tucows.
Terror propaganda can be as overt as bragging about body counts — or inflating them, as the Taliban have — or detailing bureaucratic minutiae of an Islamic governing apparatus. The Taliban said after their call with Trump that the president called Afghans a “tough people” who “have a great country and I understand that you are fighting for your homeland” — carefully crafted readout wording by the Taliban to convey that their jihad and jihadists are acknowledged, respected and successful.
The concept of collective wins against the West
After the 2016 Pulse nightclub mass shooting, al-Qaeda didn’t just give an “atta-boy” to attacker Omar Mateen, who claimed ISIS allegiance in a 911 call, but published a special Inspire magazine supplemental to break down the fundamentals of the attack and tell “every new lone mujahid [to] try to do his best to realize and attain similar or more fatalities in his operation.” Which group takes credit, the document stressed, isn’t as important as the attack itself. Similarly, ISIS propagandists invoke al-Qaeda’s 9/11 attacks to urge adherents to follow in those terrorists’ footsteps and attack key cities and targets, including vowing that “we will fight you like 9/11 attacks,” a one-upmanship image depicting five planes falling from the sky, and an image mocking an “if you see something, say something” message in the NYC subway.
ISIS breaks down their current strategy into physical, ideological and psychological warfare, and a recent propaganda handout detailing the three fronts stressed that an “enemy with defeated mentality is half-defeated.” That cuts both ways, they stress – if potential recruits think their fight doesn’t have a chance of victory, they won’t join jihad. The propaganda machines are fighting for a “war of minds” first and foremost, the ISIS recruiting material continued. Terror groups who fight each other due to ego clashes, theological disagreements or strategic loggerheads do remember their common enemy, and there is nothing unusual about one terror group lifting up another’s success as an inspirational recruitment tool or adherents of one terror group using the do-it-yourself jihad manuals from another group for help in waging attacks.
Physical collaboration, both longtime and prospective
The new leader for al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, Khalid al-Batarfi, once appeared in a Taliban video praising the longstanding relationship between the terror groups and predicted Taliban victory over the United States. “Groups of Afghan Mujahideen have emerged from the land of Afghans that will destroy the biggest idol and head of kufr of our time, America,” Batarfi said. A January 2019 UN Security Council report stressed that the “long-standing, strong ties with the Taliban” encouraged al-Qaeda to keep using Afghanistan as a safe haven. U.S. Central Command leader Gen. Frank McKenzie told the House Armed Services Committee today that he’s “less optimistic” about the Taliban following through on their promise to divorce al-Qaeda. “That is something they are going to have to demonstrate that has not yet been demonstrated,” he said.
A common enemy can also sometimes make bedfellows out of entities we might not predict — like the current ISIS and al-Qaeda alliance in West Africa. “Al-Qaeda and ISIS cooperate with one another; I can’t really explain that,” U.S. Africa Command leader Gen. Stephen Townsend told the House Armed Services Committee today, musing that it might be because some of these terrorists grew up together. He noted that “if ISIS can carve out a new caliphate or al-Qaeda can, they will do it and they will attempt to do it in West Africa.”
Perceived lack of consequences
The Taliban continued attacks during talks and didn’t lose their place at the negotiating table. Since the September 2018 appointment of former UN Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad as the State Department’s Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation, Taliban attacks have included:
- December 2018 Faryab Province mass shooting
- January 2019 car bomb and small-arms attack on a military checkpoint in Maidan Shar
- May 2019 Kabul mosque bombing
- June 2019 car bombing in Kandahar province, killing 53
- July 2019 bus bomb and small-arms attack on a Kabul district, killing 34 civilians and six security personnel, with 35 children among more than 100 wounded
- July 2019 Farah bus bomb on the Kandahar-Herat highway that killed 35 and wounded 27, mostly women and children
- August 2019 suicide bombing outside a police station in Kabul, killing mostly civilians
- September 2019 suicide bombings in Charikar, Kabul, and Qalat that killed dozens
- December 2019 car bomb attack on Bagram Air Base, killing two civilians and wounding dozens more
Jane’s Terrorism and Insurgency Centre reported in February that the Taliban drove up the overall terror death toll in 2019 even as global terror attacks were on the decline. Taliban attacks increased by almost 90 percent with their fatalities up by more than 60 percent (more deaths than the next nine deadliest terror groups combined) as they surpassed ISIS to become the world’s deadliest non-state armed group.
Yet, as they self-identified as a jihad-centered political entity, they traded a promise for U.S. withdrawal for a promise to behave. The Taliban were able to get a deal even while continuing their raison d’être and ramping up attacks once the ink was dry. This doesn’t mean al-Qaeda will be in line to schedule talks, but it does send a message that terrorists’ foes can tire of the battle and terrorists need not change their ways to take advantage of the situation.
Perceived gain in legitimacy
The New York Times drew criticism for running the op-ed “What We, the Taliban, Want” by Sirajuddin Haqqani, a specially designated global terrorist with a combined $15 million in rewards on his head from the FBI and State Department. With that byline, the Taliban got what they want: being viewed as a legitimate entity rather than a terrorist group. The legitimization of the Taliban as a political unit – or regional security unit, as they’ve been tasked with policing other jihadists under the deal – can empower, embolden, and stoke the flames of recruitment, retention and operations among all jihadist groups. After all, ISIS gushed in e-books at the beginning of the caliphate that the Islamic State would be a world-recognized state; they frequently hyped their everyday civic functions in often mundane photo essays and videos to paint themselves as a legitimate government.
Operating as the “Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan,” the Taliban claim to be a legitimate governing body — telling jihadists that terror groups can be recognized as a legitimate operating state or political entities. This wasn’t just the goal of ISIS’ caliphate in Iraq and Syria but remains a living goal among ISIS wilayats, or declared provinces, in pockets ranging from Africa to Asia. Al-Qaeda has called for a new Arab Spring that, instead of democratic fervor seeking to oust tyrants, targets “agents of the Americans” and establishes governments operating under strict shariah law.
Time will bear out whether the agreement with the Taliban will serve as kryptonite for all terrorists, with the understanding that the effects are often as subtle and immeasurable as increased readership of terror propaganda and slides into extremism or as potentially devastating as subsequent recruitment for lone or group-sponsored attacks. Intelligence can gauge whether al-Qaeda cooperation and collaboration continues. But one certainty is that terrorists no longer live, communicate, or recruit in silos: a victory against a common enemy is viewed at its core a victory for all, and that can feed the ever-growing and accessible ideological marketplace of terrorist ideas, methods and inspiration.